Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Angry Apostrophe


I recently learned that 24 September is National Punctuation Day. In honor of the occasion--which coincides nicely with my recent blogs dealing with Annoying Errors, I thought we could talk about those interesting squigglies and dots and dashes we use to help readers understand what we mean.

In my last blog, I indicated that one way to get a group of authors ranting and raving was to bring up the subject of copy editors. Among other things, a copy editor is supposed to check our punctuation. For some reason, copy edit changes used to disturb me far more than editorial changes. I would go ballistic when a copy editor removed or added a comma, yet not even blink when an editor suggested I delete three chapters.

Virago It must be some kind of mental condition. That would explain why I still twitch when I remember a very weird set of mistakes in at least one volume of Byron’s Letters and Journals. Throughout, it’s was used where its should be and vice versa. It drove me insane.

Yswfrontsm200dpi I know Byron was clueless about punctuation. He admitted it. I know a dash tended to be his universal punctuation tool--but he did dash very dashingly, we must admit. I can understand his failing to master the art of commas, semi-colons, and colons. An apostrophe, however, is sort of a spelling tool, isn’t it? It marks contractions. And he seemed to understand this aspect of punctuation..sort of...or was that his editor? He uses tons of contractions. They appear in practically every piece of his poetry I quoted in Your Scandalous Ways. Here’s a sample from Beppo.

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear
You should not, I’ll describe it to you exactly:
‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,
Carved at the prow, built lightly, but compactly;
Row’d by two rowers, each call’d ‘Gondolier,’
It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do.

Life_in_london_pg Yes, he had his own unique style but his grammar was fine and his spelling no weirder or more inconsistent than others of his time. It seems bizarre that he got it’s and its backwards consistently. I can’t help thinking those errors were not in the original letters but were committed by a typist, copy editor, or printer and somehow went through the whole production process without anyone realizing--or with everyone thinking that’s how he did it.

I’ve always wondered why it’s and its confuse anybody, but they clearly do because I see it all the time, including in newspapers. Is it because English teachers don’t drum it into kids’ heads early and often enough? It’s one of those things, like the use of lie and lay, that need to be drummed in because it’s easy to get confused. In English we form possessive pronouns differently from the way we form other possessives, e.g., “Pavarotti’s voice was distinctive” but “its engine was broken.”

Chicago_manualHowever, while I can--sort of, and with sorrow in my heart--understand how apostrophes get misplaced, I have never figured out how apostrophes got into the plurals business--as in “Banana’s 89¢ a pound” or “keeping up with the Jones’s.”

Here is one approach to explaining the correct way to use apostrophes. Here's a politer version of same. And here are many examples of punctuation abuse.

A few years ago, Lynn Truss got so exasperated with stupid punctuation that she wrote a book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, about it. Funny thing is, the book’s got errors. Louis Menand, in the New Yorker (28 June 2004), reviewed her book, and suspected it was a hoax, because the errors, he said, started in the dedication and continued with gay abandon throughout the book.

In Jasper Fforde’s alternate reality novel, The Eyre Affair, a form of specially engineered bookworms (as in actual larval things, not nerds--and I cannot possibly get into the technical capabilities of these bookworms) excrete apostrophes. That would explain the wretched excess.

Here's one proposed solution to apostrophe atrocities: abolish that little squiggle.

Fowler_the_kings_englishI don’t agree. I’ve devoted my life to the English language, trying to master its intricacies. Punctuation, grammar--all those dull, technical matters to me are part of the big game of exploring the expressive possibilities of a remarkably elastic language. To eradicate a punctuation mark is like eliminating, say, metaphors. Yes, it would make things simpler, but should language always be simple? A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but it’s not necessarily the most beautiful route.

Merely my opinion, of course, but when the technical niceties of language are under discussion, people can get very...intense. In the words of Randy Newman, "I could be wrong...But I don't think so." And I think he speaks for all of us.

Originally posted at Word Wenches.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Mea Culpa

From Loretta:

A reader asks:

“I know that once a story is submitted to the editor, it goes through a series of proof-reading and corrections, reworking storylines and editing. Why is it that after all that work some of these mistakes are still found in the story? Do the authors not keep vitals on their characters in order to keep his/her description accurate all through the book?”

It's alarmingly easy for authors to make mistakes. Including really horrendous, ridiculous ones. I speak from experience.

Notes I research the daylights out of my subjects. I keep spreadsheets of character names, physical descriptions, dates of birth, dates of important events, and historical data. I keep a notebook of facts and details I need to check. A phrase in Chapter 2 might be too modern. I’ve changed a character’s hair or eye color or name or age part way through the story. I need to find out where a shop is. I make a note in the notebook and go back to the WIP.

Dictionary_of_the_vulgar_tongueI do this because stopping to correct these kinds of details while in the process of writing disrupts my concentration, mood, and the story’s flow. Because I revise so much while writing, it’s usually better to reserve the detail work for later in the process, when I’m cleaning up the manuscript before submitting it. But sometimes, in the frenzy and exhaustion of Deadline Hell, I miss one of my notes, and the mistake appears in print, to annoy readers like Jaclyne, who wonders how this can happen, when so many pairs of eyes review my work.

Chicago_manual Mistakes with eye or hair color or other vital statistics are the kind someone really ought to catch, same as they ought to catch a writer's using, say, "flaunt" when the correct word is "flout," or a comma where there should be a period, or a missing end quote. If I’m such a babbling idiot by Deadline time as to miss an obvious mistake, a copy editor ought to catch it, and most will. But I’ve never had the same copy editor twice, and as is the case in all professions, some are sharper than others. (Along with covers, the subject of copy editors is one guaranteed to get a group of authors very excited. And not in a good way.)

1817accidentsinquadrilledancing_2 When it comes to historical detail or foreign languages (for Yanks, the latter would include British English), it’s mainly the author’s responsibility. And this author, though a nerd, ALWAYS makes at least one mistake per book. It’s not that I don’t care. I drive myself & others crazy with the obsession to Get It Exactly Right. Yet inevitably, there are errors. Because Nobody’s Perfect. (For the best use ever of this phrase, please see Some Like It Hot.)

Lord_of_scoundrels_07sm_3 ArticlesI could do a whole blog--or several--on the pitfalls of historical research, but foreign languages allow for an easy demonstration of the If You Don't Know It's Wrong, How Do You Know It's Wrong principle.

A few years ago I found out that there were a few errors in the Italian (pronouns and gender errors) in Lord of Scoundrels. This happened despite my consulting books as well as people who spoke and wrote Italian. Trouble was, I did not realize how difficult and complicated Italian was--trickier grammatically than French, for instance. I did not know that the book I relied on was inadequate. Neither I nor my consultants realized my queries to them should have been more detailed. What I needed was an experienced professional translator, but I didn’t know enough to know this.


I cannot expect editor and copy editor to catch Americanisms (i.e., words or phrases the English wouldn’t have used) or anachronistic language. So no, I can’t expect them to catch errors in every single foreign language that appears in my books--like Arabic as understood by English speakers in the 19th C (for Mr. Impossible).

Jaclyne says, “It sometimes annoys me to find these in the books I read, thinking that if I found them, they should have been easily corrected in the editing process. It makes me think I should become a proof-reader... seems to me the ones that are supposed to do the job are only skimming the story, not reading it, and so, not doing their job properly.”

That may be a little harsh. True, I and other authors have discovered errors introduced by others during the editing/copyediting/proofreading process--and not corrected, despite our protests. We’ve also discovered mistakes that every single person reviewing the manuscript somehow overlooked. But we definitely can't expect those reviewing to be omniscient. We’ve all made mistakes, I think, for which we can blame no one but ourselves, and all we can say to readers is, Mea Culpa.

(Originally posted at Word Wenches)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Lord Who?

A reader asks:

“Every once in a while a character in a historical romance will be referred to simply as Lord Such-and-such, with no indication ever being given as to what his title actually is (Earl, Viscount, Baron). Sometimes the title is the same as the last name, sometimes it is different. Was this a typical way to refer to nobility at times, with the actual rank being a given to those of the time? Was the rank understood to be different if the last name was the same?”

Crowns_coronetsBritish titles and styles of address is a quicksand topic. One of my favorite quotations on this subject comes from my 1936 Whitaker’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage:

“The rules which govern the arrangements of the Peerage are marked by so many complications that even an expert may occasionally be perplexed.” (italics mine)

This is why, whenever I respond to questions about same, I do so with trembling typing fingers, sure that someone, somewhere, will remind me of an exception I forgot to except or a subtlety I’ve overlooked. As I try to answer your question, please bear that in mind.

Lawrenceduke_of_wellingtonThe grades of the peerage are, in order of rank, Duke, Marquess or Marquis (pronounced “markwiss” or "markwess" but not "markee"), Earl, Viscount (rhymes with My Count--"s" is silent), Baron. Anyone referred to or addressed as Lord So & So is below the rank of Duke.

How do we know this? A duke is addressed as Your Grace (older style guides include the form My Lord Duke) or, by equals, Duke. He might be referred to as the Duke of Someplace, e.g., the gentleman here is the Duke of Wellington. But the duke is never Lord Wellington. (This rule does not apply to Royal Dukes, who are younger sons of the monarch. They’re addressed differently.)

3rd_earl_of_egremontBelow the rank of Duke, the correct form is “Lord.” So a Lord Somebody is a Marquess/Marquis, Earl, Viscount, or Baron. One doesn’t address these peers as Marquess of So & So or Baron Such & Such, and normally doesn’t refer to them by their rank. In conversation, people would refer to this gentleman, the Earl of Egremont, as Lord Egremont or, very informally, Egremont.

According to my Titles and Forms of Address: “All peers and peeresses below ducal rank are called lord and lady in speech....there are a few formal occasions in which the full title would be used, but it would never happen in intimate speech.”

Sometimes the title is the same as the last name and sometimes not. For a great many peerages, the title comes from the name of a place. All dukes’ titles are from a place, even when the family name is the same as the title. But a baron’s title might come from a place, his family name, or another source entirely.

Earl_granville_2 If there's no “of”, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a family name. And if there is an “of”, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a family name.

The first Earl Granville--whose wife raised the two illegitimate children he had with her aunt--is missing the "of," though Granville isn’t his family name but the name of an ancestor whose title became extinct. This earl's family name is Leveson-Gower, pronounced lewson-gorr (pronunciation is another minefield).

Dunrobin_castle_2 Leveson-Gower is also the family name of the Duke of Sutherland, who’s selling the Titian and who has a really nice place in Scotland, Dunrobin Castle, that I got to visit years ago when the dollar wasn’t like Monopoly money. L_owl(That's me at his place with the owl.)

But I digress.

Viscounts and Barons, whether the title is from a place or not, don’t have an “of” in their titles, thus, the Viscount Hereford or the Baron Headley.

Viscount_castlereaghSo no, there’s no way to tell the rank simply from the name used in the title. Those with whom they associate are supposed to know whether Lord Castlereagh here is a marquess or earl or viscount or baron. I’ve always imagined that members of the aristocracy learned who was who in the same way they learned to speak, and the knowledge was, like accent, one of the ways members of the upper orders could tell who was one of them and who wasn’t. It was a small world, after all.

And that’s as far as I dare to go on the topic. Not a word about younger sons, wives, daughters, son’s wives, daughter’s husbands, etc.

English_dukesIf you’d like to explore this labyrinth, there are plenty of references. In addition to the aforementioned Whitakers, and an 1811 Debretts reprint, my frequently-used guides are:

Titles and Forms of Address: A Guide to Correct Use, A&C Black, London.

Measures, Howard. Styles of Address. Thomas Y Crowell

Emily Hendrickson, The Regency Reference Book. An excellent reference for a great many Regency-era subjects, it's sold privately. Contact Emily at for information or to order a copy.

Candice Hern has heaps of terrific Regency-era stuff on her website, including a Who’s Who of the lords & ladies we often encounter in the stories and a fabulous collection of fashion plates.

Tomjerry_at_almacks Of course, not everyone needs to know more. Before I got into this business, I had very little understanding of British titles and would not have known or cared when an author used the incorrect form. Now that I do know, such mistakes may unsuspend my suspension of disbelief.

(Originally published at Word Wenches)